A person accused of one or more crimes must go through a criminal court process. This letter explains that process. What follows is oriented toward adult courts. Differences in juvenile court are explained last.
Arrest. The defendant’s involvement in the criminal process may start with an arrest. A law enforcement officer can arrest a person if he has probable cause that the person committed any felony, any misdemeanor that the officer witnessed directly, and certain other misdemeanors that he has probable cause to believe were committed. The officer can make the arrest even though no charges have been filed.
First Appearance. If a defendant is arrested but not yet charged, then he makes an appearance in court. This first appearance must occur before the end of the next judicial day after the arrest. The judge determines if there is probable cause that the defendant committed a crime and will release the defendant if this finding cannot be made. If there is probable cause, the judge will usually release the defendant conditionally. The defendant may have to post a bond and follow some rules to be released while the case is pending.
Charging. The criminal court case itself really starts with the defendant being charged with one or more crimes. In Superior Court, the prosecutor files an “Information” that lists the crimes. In District Court, that same document is called a “Complaint.” Alternatively, a law enforcement officer may file the charges by writing a Criminal Citation that lists one or more misdemeanors. A law enforcement officer cannot charge a felony. If a defendant is arrested and detained or released on conditions, charges must be filed against the defendant within three judicial days of the arrest, or the defendant will be released with no conditions. If the defendant was not arrested initially, then the court could issue a summons to require the defendant to appear to answer the charges, or may issue an arrest warrant.
Arraignment. Once the defendant is charged, he will appear for arraignment. At the arraignment, the defendant enters a guilty plea or a not guilty plea for each charge. Pleading “not guilty” does not mean the defendant is lying if he knows he is guilty. It simply means that the case will continue. If a defendant pleads guilty for a charge, then he will be sentenced on that charge. Guilty pleas at arraignment are rare. If the arraignment is the defendant’s first appearance in the court, the court may also impose conditions of his release as explained above.
Discovery. Once the defendant is arraigned, the prosecution and defense exchange “discovery.” Discovery includes witness lists, documents, and other evidence relating to the charges. The prosecution typically has three weeks after arraignment to get discovery to the defense. It is often the case that the defense does not fully appreciate what evidence the prosecution has obtained until after receiving discovery.
Investigation. One or both sides may investigate the case after charges are filed. At a minimum, the defense usually interviews the prosecution’s witnesses. The defense’s investigation can include hiring a private investigator and utilizing a criminal laboratory. The police may continue its investigation, especially if the case is started by an arrest immediately after the incident being charged.
Pretrial Motions. In some cases, the defense may make motions to exclude evidence and, in rare cases, to dismiss one or more charges. These motions may be based on a constitutional violation such as an officer making an arrest without probable cause. Motions may also be based on evidentiary principles such as the general exclusion from trial of evidence of the defendant’s prior bad acts. In rare circumstances, the defense may move to dismiss one or more charges because the prosecution does not have enough evidence or because the prosecutor violated the defendant’s rights in some way. Pretrial motions often involve evidentiary hearings in which witnesses testify. In that way, they are mini-trials. However, the judge, not a jury, decides each motion.
Trial. A judge may convict a defendant of a charge only if the defendant pleads guilty to the charge or is found guilty after a trial. Both the defendant and the State have a right to have a jury decide guilt or innocence. But if both the defendant and the State waive that right, the judge makes the decision. Trials are involved affairs especially if a jury is hearing the case. They rarely can be completed in a day (at least in San Juan County), and can last for several weeks.
Sentencing. If a defendant is convicted either after a trial or after his own guilty plea, he is sentenced. In a sentencing, the prosecutor and the defendant make recommendations to the court on what the sentence should be. Members of the public may speak. In rare circumstances, usually after a guilty plea, the court will take testimony. The court then pronounces sentence.
Post-judgment Proceedings. Nearly all sentences involve a period of time for the defendant to complete the sentence. During that time, the court may hold review hearings to check on the defendant’s progress. If the defendant violates the conditions of his sentence, the prosecutor may try to prove the violation to the court, and if successful, the court may impose a sanction for the violation. Eventually, the defendant will complete his sentence and no longer be subject to the supervision of the court.
Juvenile Court. In terms of procedure, Juvenile Court is similar but not the same as the adult courts. First, the terminology is different: A juvenile is a respondent, not a defendant. There is an adjudication, not a conviction. The judge imposes a disposition, not a sentence. But these terms mean roughly the same thing. Cases in Juvenile Court are always tried to the judge. There is never a jury. Juveniles are always supervised by Juvenile Court Services while the case is pending and while serving sentences. Juvenile dispositions are somewhat different than adult sentences. And there are other differences in the rules.
There are many details that this summary does not address. Your attorney can explain these.
This website provides general information to the public on legal issues. These informational materials are not intended, and should not be taken, as legal advice on any particular set of facts or circumstances. You should contact Brandli Law for advice on specific legal problems.
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